Often when I look at the cover of Aargh! (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia!), I almost think it might have been painted by Bill Sienkiewicz. There is a similarity in terms of the painterly, almost abstract style: the way the figure is painted betrays an alarming amount of skill but there is also a sort of symbology there: neither artist seems satisfied with strict photorealism. The following is an unpublished Big Numbers cover by Sienkiewicz:
The cover of ‘Aargh!’, an anthology published by Alan Moore’s Mad Love in 1988, is the work of Dave McKean – the only time that Moore and McKean have collaborated in any way to my knowledge. McKean of course is much more famous for his collaborations with Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, having designed/created the covers for that popular series. I debated whether to pick one of McKean’s Sandman covers for this series of comics cover write-ups. So many of them are stunning but the problem is that the abstract symbolic nature thrusts their subliminal essence up to the surface, the forefront. It’s hard to penetrate some hidden meaning because they are so dreamlike in the first place.
In terms of the Aargh! cover (Aargh! was a benefit anthology created to fight Clause 28 in Thatcher’s Britain which according to Wikipedia, “was designed to outlaw the promotion of homosexuality”), the scenario depicted on the front is quite clear. Some anonymous official (a white male) wearing a suit and glasses is cutting a newspaper into cookie cutter type alternating male and female shapes. The newspaper that he uses to cut the figures out of, the ‘cloth’ so to speak, is The Sun, a notorious right-wing insensitive tabloid and the headlines that we can make out, or guess at, seem homophobic in content and tone. The man doing the cutting seems to be a functionary of some sort, faceless, wearing a dispassionately thin tie, and his glasses (suggesting myopia) and scissors (shears that are large and almost threatening) are pronounced.
The skill of the artist ensures that we can strongly sense the facial features of the man without actually seeing them. He wields his shears and power anonymously. His expression is sour and stern, and his cutting the shapes of the women and men of course symbolizes governmental/society pressure to conform to gender norms and stereotypes. The palette is very limited (cold, unappealing, despite the attractive art) and it is lit quite starkly while employing the heavy use of shadow and negative space. The image always makes me think of conspiracy theories and movies such as J.F.K. and All The President’s Men – shadowy figures controlling society through manipulation and subterfuge.
Perhaps what is most striking and inexplicable is McKean’s choice (even at this early stage in his career) to not use clearly defined outlines for the figure. The top of his head and left side of the face seem to dissolve into a plume of acrid blue smoke which isn’t complimentary exactly but proves intriguing. McKean has talked in the past about how his influences have largely stemmed from postwar British painters and this figurative quality imbues his work with a certain haunting spiritualism. It’s wintry without being cold. It’s sombre without being depressing. It suggests an act of creation before it has properly formed or a form in the midst of dissolution. It, by contrast, makes the colourful Aargh! title/logo (an expression of extreme frustration caught in comics parlance) really pop out.